James Carter has never played Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige" symphony in its entirety. So it's fair to say he didn't have to have his arm twisted too much to be part of this weekend's performance of the landmark 1943 piece that will kick off the 2013 Detroit Jazz Festival Community Series.
" 'Black, Brown and Beige,' to me, just represented one of Duke's high points," says the Detroit-born saxophonist, a protege of the late Donald Washington who's released 16 albums since 1991. "It just think it was one of Duke's serious, fertile times. He was the epitome of using the big band as his instrument, writing pieces for certain individuals to play.
"You just think about people he had in town with him, (saxophonist) Ben Webster coming back into the band, and all the work he was doing, and that was definitely one of his crowning achievements. It just made you really feel good about the music and was something that people could relate to."
Carter, 44, will perform "Black, Brown and Beige" and other Ellington pieces alongside vocalists Alice McCallister Tillman and Shaida Nurullah, with David Berger conducting the Detroit Jazz Festival Orchestra. Carter promises that "I'm definitely going to have my own ideas on spinning it" to his particular style, but he adds that it's also "just an honor to me to be able to be appointed to the position of Ben Webster's or Paul Gonzales' chair" in the piece.
Meanwhile, he's also looking forward to taking on Ellington's "Diminuendo and Cresendo in Blue" -- for other reasons. "The last time I did it was at the 50th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival" in 2004, Carter recalls, "and I upped Paul Gonzales' (repetition of) choruses. He did 27; I did 31 or 32, and then my reed broke. I was actually trying to go for 50, for the years of the festival, but the reed had another idea.
"So who knows what I'll go for this time."
The Detroit Jazz Festival presents Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige" and other pieces at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 10, at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Tickets are $14-$40. Call 313-961-5450 or visit www.detroitjazzfest.com.
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